MASTERY

I am from the terrain of the red willow people, tua-tah. This is the terrain that shaped me, and those before me. The same way the land holds memory, I feel in me a memory of all my practices.

I started my journey in food and clay as a young boy who ate terribly most of my childhood. I remember walking down the dirt road to my grandfather’s house with my mother and her showing me the wild roses, and sharing how my grandfather used eat them. Every summer I would walk from school with my classmates, and as we darted off to go hand fishing, build wood forts, or snag some pu-la-lu (wild plum) pies from the shops inside the Pueblo, I would stop and eat a handful of rose petals. Everyone thought it was crazy, and I would dare them to try it, usually with little to no luck. Being this picky kid, I thought that these rose petals some how were magical, almost as if they were the only “food” found in the wild.

My grandfather passed away early in my life. He was a Concha, my connection to Taos Pueblo. Lupe Concha was a farmer and came from a farming family, the last at the Pueblo to raise cattle. All this was lost on me as a kid, though we grew up in his house in the midst of his orchard that looked up to the south end of the village. Even though I got to spend some time with him, he had already let go of his practices of working with the land at that point. His house had three rooms, a bedroom and what was added on just before I was born, a bathroom and kitchen. The floor was mud and so was the roof. I helped my father take off the dirt from the roof to fix it from leaks and the stress the weight of the earth put on the beams… he would put in it’s place a modern pitched roof. I remember though the spirit of that initial roof, a terrain of its own, holding weeds and cactus.

As a teenager we spent more time in town, as the Pueblo didn’t have a high school and my parents had split ways. For some reason, while at high school in tow–and I’m still not sure why to this day–I decided to join the culinary arts class and started to become enamored by food, a feeling I never shared for public schooling or schooling in general. After high school, I dropped out of college and decided to move to Chicago to learn cooking through working. I found myself as a nineteen year old in the kitchen of Alinea restaurant, the youngest hire at that time. That year they won three Michelin stars and sixth best restaurant in the world award. Being eager to learn as much as I could, I spent a morning once a week, before working twelve+ hour shifts at Alinea, at a local butcher shop. Despite the allure of such an amazing kitchen, I was still eager to learn as much as I could and later moved to Washington State and San Francisco to work at The Willow’s Inn and Saison. Looking back, I don’t think I could have picked any better places to learn. They all were operating at the highest levels, but all had completely different ethos. This journey, which took seven years, became my initiation into manhood. Something that is important to those of Taos Pueblo, but something that I never had, because of my father making a conscious effort to distance himself from the culture. My initiation, however, was no less important. It was the separation from familiar, the self responsibility, the self-generated action, and the learning who I was and who I wanted to become. I always knew I would come back home, I just never knew when, but after what I now look back on as my initiation, I knew there was nothing that would keep me away from it.

In this transition back home I created my project / shed with the hopes to conjure my own voice but also to shed for myself all that I had learned from others on my journey. I always loved the concept of shedding, the way that when a snake sheds, it loses a part of itself, but in the process becomes more of itself. That’s the process I wanted to generate.

The project started as merely dinners, in which I wanted to feel fully authentic, something unattainable in a restaurant. I started to learn about clay and making my own vessels, most of the food was foraged, and I would cook and serve a small table of ten on a table I had built. Now five years later, / shed has molded more to its underlying ethos and has become a whole ecosystem of practices, many of which are vernacular to this place and terrain. A contact point between the past and future and a blurring of the lines between life and work.

Like in nature, there is abundance in diversity. The ecosystem of / shed and my life, is parallel and is based on a diversity of practices that are imperative to the whole. Each practice involves an intimacy with our terrain and the culture created by those living the same way. The ecosystem is all imperative to the whole and looks something like this.

¬ Terrain ( participation )

¬ Ecology ( connection )

¬ Land and animal husbandry ( agriculture / horticulture )

¬ Remedios ( foraging )

¬ Dinners ( gathering )

¬ Clay ( vessels )

¬ Generating ( culture/education )

¬ Mercado ( making )

¬ Recuerdos ( remembering )

My practices, which all build up this ecosystem, and which in fruiting body are dinners, revolve around the season and my terrain, which are the tempo kept by the dinners. As I delve deeper into the meaning of cooking, these dinners take the shape of a ceremony or prayer, with reverence for everything that makes up a dinner.

Where I spent my formative years, at the Pueblo, though rare these days, is the mentality that there is no separation between spiritual practice and the daily practice. I always found this beautiful–the idea that an action like chopping and stacking wood can be done with such reverence and even more so, with mastery. I move about my practices with the same ethos. I aim to do my work, no matter how mundane or basic, with the same reverence and pursuit for authenticity as if I was doing a dinner.

I grew up on the outskirts of all these practices. People where I come from only a couple generations back used to be self sustaining, and all of that that continues to bleed into norteño culture of modern day. I never got to learn from my paternal grandfather about farming and ranching or how to flood irrigate a field with the acequia or how to hold a seed in your mouth to help with germination. I never got to learn from my maternal great grandmother how too cook or how to harvest food from the wild. I never got to learn from my paternal great grandmother how to work with clay or how to plaster with mud and tierra blanca, but I can feel it all in me, all the way to my bones. The same way a seed holds memory from those before it. The ancestral knowledge embedded in my DNA helps inform me and the ways in which I move about the world. I’m grateful to have been able to hear it, and to continue to be able to draw from it.

While thinking of mastery, I realized it is something deeply important to me, and seems to be a word or thought that seemingly has many variations of meaning, but at the heart of it, and for myself, I find that it is the overwhelming pursuit to understanding something wholly through experience. It is something completely unattainable, to know everything about anything, but the desire to spend the time to learn and to have the reverence for the process has been my pursuit of mastery in all the things I do.

Chef Johnny Ortiz runs / shed, a dinner project in Northern New Mexico based around exploring the reflection of time and place through endemic plants, clays, and natural materials, and carrying on the tradition of bringing people together through food. In 2020, he was recognized as a semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year Award by the James Beard Foundation.

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